There Will Your Heart Be Also
“Well, that blows…”
I snapped the television off and sank into my leather couch, tossing the remote to the walnut hardwood floor with irritation, a ticking clock on the mantle above a marble fireplace filling the silence of my nice-size, two-story house. I heaved a breath, the taste of ham and hollandaise still on my tongue, then promptly threw back a gulp of champagne straight from the bottle. The one I had popped an hour ago for a celebratory mimosa after making myself to-die-for eggs Benedict, if I do say so myself.
Except the orange juice had gone bad. Sour and fermenting in all the wrong ways. Which fit the day to a T, considering what the governor had just announced—and what I was celebrating. Or supposed to be celebrating, had things not gone sour in all the wrong ways.
The Big Four-Oh.
Had a big bash planned, too. Mom and Dad. A few former clients from the firm, along with my two associates, Reggie Wilson and Elizabeth Seward. Then some of the fellas from Max’s Place, Max Blade himself providing the alcohol and catering in a feast fit for a forty-year-old king. Even the Rev and a few of his parishioners from my childhood church were set to join in the festivities.
But then the mimosa fiasco, which was really a prelude to the big-kahuna reveal when my cell phone vibrated with the emergency order from the governor locking us down. I’d turned on the massive fifty incher anchored above my vacant fireplace to find a talking head dutifully outlining the terms of the lockdown from the plush comforts of a hermetically sealed news studio.
Mandatory six-feet “social distancing,” the new lingo for the apocalypse that was a shoe-in for Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. No unnecessary travel, which apparently included trips to the barber. There went my yearly birthday ritual stopping by Old Man Nugent’s to freshen up the do for another year after finishing homemade eggs Benedict and mimosas. And of all days, the day I slammed into middle age. Because what they say is true: a man who cuts his hair is about to change his life. Well, I think Covid-19 pretty well took the wheel on the life change.
And drove me and the world off a cliff!
As soon as the governor dropped the bombshell stay-at-home order, my lawyer brain started spinning out all the ways I could weasel out of the mandate. Wasn’t weaseling one of the five stages of grief? I’d already cycled through the whole lot of them that morning after each bite of eggs and ham, creamy hollandaise sauce and English muffin thanks to the Big Four-Oh. Could hardly deny I was turning forty, so I quickly moved on to anger. Not anger exactly, more irritation. Especially when I found the first hint of grey streaking through the sides of my overgrown black hair. Which had the obvious effect of sinking me into depression. But by the third mimosa, I was on my way to acceptance.
Mimosas are good for that sort of thing.
Until the emergency text alerting me to the lockdown.
Not that the restrictions didn’t make sense, given all the reports of the zombie apocalypse descending on the world. My own state was running third behind New York and New Jersey for most cases and most deaths. So, yeah, sign me up for social distancing! Didn’t make it any easier knowing I was doing my part to flatten the curve. On this day of all days.
Someone somewhere said life begins at forty. Not for Gideon O’Donnell.
So there I sat, chugging back another mouthful of champagne, alone.
Until my leg vibrated with an incoming text.
Setting the bottle on the floor with a quarter-empty clink, I retrieved my phone and smiled.
The petite Southern strawberry blonde Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Mill Creek Junction who had transplanted to West Michigan a year ago, much to my chagrin.
Of course, she had all the Southern charm of a pixie, with that smile and wink and twangy ‘Bless your heart’ wielded like dust to lull you into acceptance.
Right before she stuck a shiv in your belly at trial.
Luckily, two could play at her game. And I did, holding my own against the feisty woman and winning enough verdicts to keep a batting average that still brought in the clients.
But she was also a looker, and available, and a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Which was why I had steered clear. Because Winston Churchill’s insight into Russia was probably true for sweet Annie Kirkland, too.
Yet she had texted me on my birthday, which was nice and unexpected. ‘Happy B-Day!!!! Wish I could have given you a better present but figured the lockdown was just what the doc ordered for your 40th 🙂 And you better comply, or I’ll throw the book at you! And you know I will, hot shot.’
I chuckled, then texted back: ‘Thanks for the well-wishes. I wouldn’t think of poking the beast 🙂 See you in court!’
First birthday wish of the day from my chief rival. While on lockdown. After turning forty.
What a day.
But no other calls or texts. Not from Reg or Lizzy, not from Mom or Dad. What was up with that? I understood we were on lockdown and all, but shouldn’t social distancing increase the number of calls and texts? Yet my phone was running dry.
Ahh well, everyone was probably too freaked at the gravity of the pandemic to worry about little ol’ me and my birthday.
Taking in my empty living room, bare walls complementary shades of sanitary gray—with pretentious names like Pewter and Pearl River and Anchor—a sudden coldness flooded my veins, and my head began to swim with a familiar friend I’d kept at bay during my teenage years, and even through college and law school when I kept my focus on working hard and making something of myself.
Suddenly, I felt very small and unseen. Alone and aware of the emptiness of my surroundings in a way you’re not supposed.
Most of life is background noise. The house or apartment, the car and commute, the blanket tossed casually across the back of the couch when you need it on a cold night, the dishes ready to use and a refrigerator stocked for three-square meals, the magazines piled next to the couch you always mean to cancel but never get around to doing. All of it just exists, it’s there, like a steady electric presence just waiting to be tapped into, to be enjoyed, to be leveraged to live and survive, to function with perfunctory servitude.
But looking around my living room at the flat screen above my fireplace and shelves of books in one corner and leather furniture arrayed around the large space, glimpsing the mahogany dining room set in the next room and fine china behind glass, catching the study in the opposite room with my iMac and MacBook Pro and tomes of legal analysis and walnut desk piled with work and Juris Doctorate with the imprimatur of Georgetown Law, and feeling the weight of the floor above housing my four-post king bed and suits and ties and sweatpants and the two other rooms waiting to house nonexistent guests and nonexistent children full of exercise equipment and childhood sports trophies—all of it pressed in against me in all of its abundance and gluttony and utter vapidity at going unused, sitting as trinkets and trophies of success rather than service.
No doubt at forty I had arrived by any definition, with all the trappings of bourgeois respectability and comfort.
And yet….who was I kidding?
In the midst of a pandemic that Lord only knew would end when and how, the loneliness I had kept at bay for twenty-four years smacked me in the face. I couldn’t deny it, couldn’t escape it.
All I really had was me, myself, and I. Had always been that way, really, beginning with my adoption, after my birth mom left me at the fire station forty years ago. As an introvert, I normally relished the alone time at the end of a long week going to the mat for my clients and the extra class I taught at the college in town. But now it was all suffocating, ringing hollow without anyone to share it with, to feed and nurture and shelter other than my own ego.
A shiver ratcheted up my spine with the memories and moment, and my head grew faint. And I grew annoyed at myself for all the whining and complaining. Who wants to sit with that? Not me!
I slumped back into my leather couch, pressing my hands against my temples to squeeze out the silence and aloneness.
Life is what you make of it, they say. I’d sure made…something of my life. But to what end?
A sudden vision from childhood surfaced. A sermon, actually, which was crazy since it had probably been two decades since I’d darkened the threshold of a church. Yet there it was, plain as day. Something from the teachings of Jesus, I think. Sounded like it anyway, lodged way back in my brain and coming up for air.
‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
I looked around my house, then up to the ceiling and back again. Is that where my heart was? With all my stuff, the things I’d accumulated, my accomplishments and accolades and middle-class accoutrements?
I shook my head, my neck growing warm with anger. Why the heck was my conscience convicting me in like that? And on my fortieth birthday—during a pandemic, of all times!
I jumped to my feet, a coldness spreading over me as I stood still in the belly of my middle-class professional existence. I had to get out of there. Lockdown order be damned!
I rushed to my wallet and keys—to an Audi, no less, and a reminder of said middle-class professional existence—then slipped into a pair of leather driving loafers—could I get anymore bourgeois?—and raced to the front door.
I opened it and screamed.
So did Max Blade! Good friend and owner of the local bar on Main Street.
“Max! What the heck are you doing here?” I yelled, leaning against the threshold to catch my breath.
“What the heck are you doing creeping out the front door?” he yelled back.
“What do you mean creeping? I live here!” I pushed a frightened hand through my thick hair as my heart thumped on adrenaline. “And I needed to go for a drive.”
“You do know there’s a lockdown, right? And you know Chief Roller’s gonna roll up on your ass and ticket you to high heaven if you give him an excuse.”
I frowned. “Whatever. And what about you? What are you doing rolling up on me like that?”
He shoved a six-pack in my chest. “Happy birthday, dude.”
Bell’s Two Hearted. An India Pale Ale from a regional brewery. My favorite.
I ushered him inside, but not before looking up and down my street to make sure the coast was clear.
Not a soul or car in sight.
Shutting the door, I checked my phone again looking for a birthday greeting, anything from the family or my clients or associates.
I clicked it off and frowned. Whatever. Story of my life.
“Do I smell eggs and fried ham?” Max said, raising a nose in the air.
“Yeah, birthday eggs Benedict. Tradition.”
“Ahh, nice choice. Got any leftovers?”
“Leftovers? You run a bar and grill. In fact, I got the recipe from you.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the lockdown put a crimp in my entrepreneurial style.”
“Burt and Sheila didn’t show and peeps seem to be takin’ this whole social distancing thing to the extreme. So I haven’t eaten anything yet and I think my stomach is starting to gnaw on my ribcage.”
I twisted up my face and grimaced, then grabbed my phone and the nearly empty champagne bottle and started for the kitchen. “How about I’ll fix some eggs.”
Max grinned and slapped my back. “Now that’s what I’m talking about. And that’s why I like you, Gideon O’Donnell. A real servant heart, you’ve got.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“And I take my eggs scrambled, by the way.”
“Scrambled? What are you, four?”
“Hey, don’t mess with a man’s eggs preference, man.”
We reached the kitchen, more sad gray greeting us, compounded by stainless steel appliances. First thing in order after the lockdown was adding color to my place! At least it was sunny, the light streaming through an array through a bay of windows in the breakfast nook, where Max took a seat as I rummaged for a bowl and whisk.
Retrieving a carton of eggs from the massive Kitchenaid fridge built for a family of eight, I cracked two in a bowl and added one more at Max’s insistence. Then milk after he insisted no human being should suffer through scrambled eggs sans milk. Then I just handed the dang thing over to him to fix himself. He finished it off with salt and pepper and a quarter stick of butter. Worried he’d die of a coronary then and there, but whatever. Was probably why no one had nothing on his eggs this side of the Grand River.
“So check this out,” he said, pouring the concoction into a pan smeared with butter. “I snapped open my peepers this morning and thought it was the apocalypse!”
I grabbed an orange from a fruit bowl in the middle of a granite-topped island and started peeling. “That seems about right…”
“No, like the one we were raised on, with Jesus coming back to beam us outta here. Thought I’d been left behind and all that jazz!”
“You thought the rapture had happened?”
His face fell. “Maybe…”
A giggle slipped my lips. Didn’t mean to in the slightest. But there it was, another one hot on its heels until I was doubling over the counter and bracing myself against the white granite.
“Laugh it up, fuzzball.”
“I’m sorry—” Another one slipped, and Max tossed a wash cloth at my head. “Hey! Alright, I’m sorry. It just sounded so preposterous! The rapture. Had forgotten all about that nonsense.”
“Yeah, well, it sure wasn’t nonsense to me when it seemed like I was the only one on God’s green earth!”
“Tell me about it…”
“Hadn’t gotten the governor’s memo on the whole lockdown, social distancing thingamabobs. Overslept and no one showed up to work the bar, not to mention no one showed up for breakfast. Went to make a Meyer’s General run for some essentials and right shat myself when the Rev’s church parking lot was empty. And when I couldn’t get ahold of Ma and Pa—”
“You thought Jesus had come back and you’d been left behind?” I struggled not to let another giggle slip, but held it together.
Max threw me a look but spared me the kitchen towel. “Cheeto set me straight, though.”
“I bet he did. A plate of those nasty shrooms of his will set anyone straight.”
Max finished off his eggs with shredded cheddar and dumped them on a plate.
He stuffed a bite into his mouth and closed his eyes, humming with pleasure. “The stuff of life, right there.”
I threw back a swig of champagne, swallowed, and wiped my mouth. “Cheesy eggs is the stuff of life?”
“Sure thing. What more do you need than a plate of cheesy eggs? Well, that and a dog. And sherpa-lined slippers. A man’s gotta have a good pair of sherpa-lined slippers.”
I left it alone and took another swig before realizing my head was starting to throb now with libation. I set the bottle down and caught Max staring at me, as if he were waiting for an answer to a question.
“Can I help you?”
He stuffed a forkful of eggs in his mouth. “I asked you a question, partner.”
He raised the plate of cheesy eggs. “About the eggs. What more do ya need than these suckers here?”
I twisted up my face in confusion. “Wait, you wanted me to answer that? About the plate of cheesy eggs?”
“Thought it was rhetorical…”
He stuffed another bite into his mouth and shrugged. “Seems like that sort of day to be thinkin’ about such things, don’t it? Guy turns forty, on the day the good ol’ State of Michigan locks down tighter than a girdle, and during a pandemic of all times, and it gets ya thinkin’ about these sorts of things.”
“About plates of cheesy eggs?”
Max frowned. “No! About the big questions of life.”
I took out my phone to check for missed calls and texts, growing irritated with Max’s flights of philosophical fancy.
Nothing. Which made me even more irritated. I really was that alone, wasn’t I? Stuck in a house full of stuff with no one to share it with. Save Max Blade and his plate of cheesy eggs.
“Now, see,” he went on, “I ain’t no fancy lawyer like you, with your degrees and Audi and Pima cotton sheets and Kitchenaid appliances. I’m a simple man. Always have been, always will be.”
“What’s your point,” I said with more bite than I intended. I was getting irritated with his questions, like he was driving to a place I didn’t want to go.
“Whoa there, Fido. Not lookin’ to start a fight. I just know if I were in your shoes, turning forty and all and stuck in this here house during this here epidemic—”
“Pandemic,” I bit back again. “And you’re about ready to go over the hill yourself, if I recall.”
“Pandemic, then. And don’t I know it! Which got me thinkin’ all sorts of things myself. Especially when I thought Jesus had raptured the Junction away, leaving me behind with nothin’ but a roll and a half of toilet paper! Of course, I got Max’s Place and the apartment up top, bought and paid for generations back that daddy willed me. And my trusty dog Rusty and—”
“And those damn sherpa-lined slippers?”
“Exactly! That’s what I’m talking about. The simple stuff of life.” Then he leaned in closer, as if letting me in on a secret. “But then I got thinkin’ about my bigger stuff, see. Where my heart is, my soul even.”
“Your soul? You, Max Blade?”
“Ha, ha. Very funny. But seriously. Drivin’ around Mill Creek lookin’ like something out of The Walking Dead, one of those Bible verses sprang to mind. Something from Jesus, I think.”
“Max, I swear to you, if you go all Billy Graham on me—on my fortieth birthday and during a pandemic of all times…”
“Just hear me out, alright? Or Jesus, I guess. Because, I mean, how can you argue with him, right?”
I opened my mouth to reply, then shut it in a huff.
He cleared his throat and quoted, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’
I stiffened upright, my bowels going the other way.
Those were the words that had bubbled up in my conscience!
What the heck…
“Anyway,” Max went on, “not meaning to jump up on no soap box. The words just got me thinking today about where my heart’s been, what I’ve been treasuring. And whether it’s worth a hill of beans. Or bupkis.”
I went to respond when a commotion outside caught my attention. Sounded like car doors slamming, followed by voices and a bout of laughter.
Max turned toward the living room and hummed. “I wonder who that could be…”
I furrowed my brow, wondering the same.
He shoved a final bite into his mouth and nodded toward the door, a smile stretching across his face. “Maybe you should fancy yourself a look-see.”
One end of my mouth curled upward in a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. What the heck was he up to?
I shuffled into the living room and toward the front picture window to find out.
And literally dropped my jaw at what I saw.
Outside stood a massive crowd, three rows deep. Stretched up the street as far as I could tell. Everyone was standing several feet away, some wearing face masks.
And all of them people I recognized. Every blessed last one of them, waving and shouting my name, some with balloons, another one with a ‘Happy Birthday’ sign.
“Surprise.” Max was grinning from ear to ear. “Now, as you can see, they’re all social distancing, just like Her Highness instructed. So it’s legit.”
They sure were, wearing party hats and all. All of them. From the Rev and a handful of the older folks I recognized from Mill Creek Baptist who had raised me. Old Man Nugent, who I had half a mind to beg for a trim around the ears then and there. An immigrant client family who worked in the Mill Creek celery farms I’d helped avoid deportation. Ken and Barbara, another pair of clients I’d helped sue the local hospital for wrongful death after they botched their daughter’s surgery. Then there was Mom and Dad, out front with a big ‘Happy 40th 2020’ sign, where toilet paper rolls had replaced the zeros and continued with ‘the year sh#t hit the fan!’ I laughed and kept seeing faces and names that had been with me since growing up in the small town I’d resented before I left for college and then grad school in Washington, DC, and then more since I’d returned to start my small practice. Reg and Lizzy popped up behind my parents. Even Chief Roller had rolled up in his paddy wagon, lights blazing with a kind salute. And Annabelle stood a few feet away, grinning and waving.
I waved back through the window, feeling a bit silly, then feeling like the Universe was teaching me a big, fat lesson.
These were my people. And they’d shown up—during a lockdown in the middle of a pandemic, no less!
Emotion suddenly rose in my throat and sprang at the sides of my eyes. Hardly ever got choked up and never allowed myself to cry. But there I was, throat constricting in on itself and tears running down my cheeks at the sight.
I swallowed and wiped my face on my sleeve. “You—” I coughed, then tried again, “You did this?”
“Aww, buddy. Sure thing! Called in some favors.”
“That’s some favor! Dragging people out of their houses, and during a pandemic no less.”
“Come on, it’s your birthday! The big four-oh, in fact. Couldn’t let you celebrate alone here in this stuffy house of yours.”
I didn’t know what to say. So instead I did the only thing I could think of in the moment.
I threw my arms around the guy in a bear hug. Knew he’d pitch a fit with not being the physical affection type. And he did, but I didn’t care.
“Alright, alright,” he finally said, pushing me away. “Enough of the PDA.”
“How’d you pull this off? Last time I knew, you didn’t own a cell phone, so you couldn’t text. And you’re not on social media either, are you?”
“Hell no! Not gonna give my data away to no commie-pinko authoritarian overlords. Just a good ol’ fashioned dial-up and a little bit of elbow grease.”
He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door. “Come on, birthday boy. Time for the grand finale.”
I followed him, unsure what was coming.
Max threw open the door and stepped up to the edge of the porch and hollered across the neighborhood, catching everyone’s attention and quieting the festivities.
“Alright you crazy cats. Thanks for showing up to give one of the Junction’s finest a proper greeting on this inauspicious occasion, even though the shiznit really has hit the fan. Love the sign, Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell!”
Mom and Dad raised it and gave a cheer. The others joined in, blowing brightly colored blowout noisemakers, a blessed sound from the suffocating silence of the day.
“And even though technically the law forbids this sort of cavorting, I thought what better way to stick it to the man than wish Gideon here a happy fortieth.”
“I heard that,” Chief Roller shouted, eliciting laughter from the rest.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’d best get to it, then, before the chief of police gets any crazy ideas. So on three!”
Max pulled me to the center of my porch, my neck reddening with embarrassment from the attention but heart bursting from all the love.
He shouted, “One, two, three…”
And the crowd broke out in song:
‘Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Gideon. Happy birthday to you.’
“Are you one,” Max went on, “are you two, are you three…”
The others laughed but joined in when it was clear at twelve the crazy guy wasn’t going to stop.
A grin split my face from ear to ear. My cheeks were wet again from emotion and a drunken giggle escaped at seeing so many faces who had made me who I was. Pouring into me, providing for me. People who had stood beside me, even relied on me to plead their cases.
There they were, standing six feet apart, virus and pandemic be damned. A few faces were covered with face masks, but I could tell they were grinning with celebration along with the rest.
These were my people. And they were celebrating me, of all people.
That’s when it hit me: I was the luckiest dog-gone guy in the world. Blessed beyond measure.
Not because of that damned degree hanging in my study, or the cracked plastic sports trophies, or the batting average in court, or the hunk of German metal sitting in the garage, or the Pima cotton sheets on all those empty beds and that Kitchenaid mixer I rarely used, or any number of other things.
All of who I was, all of who I would be when the stay-at-home order lifted and I got on with my fortieth year of life and then all the others that followed—all of me was standing in the street.
Life is what you make of it, they say.
It’s the people that make what is your life.
And what made my life, the treasures of my life, was standing in that street, all arrayed before me, standing six feet apart.
I resolved to offer it my heart for another year, loving it the best way I knew how.
Forty was going to be a great year.
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There Will Your Heart Be Also
Mill Creek Junction • Short Story
Gideon O’Donnell is successful by most measures. He’s an attorney of a small-town private practice in Mill Creek Junction with a modest two-story house, filled with nice things and an Audi sitting in the garage.
Only problem is, he’s alone on his 40th birthday. And during a pandemic that leaves him quarantined, forcing him to take stock of life.
What he discovers is a good reminder for us all.